Roger Ailes, from his early days advising Richard Nixon to his presidential victory in 1968 to his long reign over Fox News, has been a figure of media power. His ivory tower status came crashing down when one sex scandal, then another, then more, came to light. This life is examined from start to finish in “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes.”
As I watched this soup-to-nuts biography of the man who was the most powerful person in media, I found it interesting enough, but with the feeling that I did not care about the man or his life. This is probably the leftist political beast within me that disdains Ailes and considered him a dangerous pursuer of power rather than teller of the truth.
That said, first-time feature documentary maker Alexis Bloom gathers a treasure trove of archival footage and interviews from Ailes’s early days when he produced “The Mike Douglas Show” in the mid-1960s to his infamous fall from grace, fired from Fox News and, not long after, his sudden death.
There is a copious amount of information about the man, including extensive interview footage of conservative talk-show host, Glenn Beck. But, it becomes a blur as we watch Ailes make a president (Nixon) to, many years later, declaring himself the maker of presidents (Trump). It is interesting and fills in the many bits about a man I did not particularly like or care about. Director Bloom does, though, inform and entertain, very necessary skills for any good documentary filmmaker. I give it a B-.
As a production assistant for Mike Douglas's television talk show, Roger Ailes told Richard Nixon he needed a media advisor, a title he coined on the spot. After helping Nixon get elected, Ailes proposed filming interviews with House Republicans to be sent to local news stations (at the taxpayers' expense). That project never came to fruition, but was the genesis for Fox News, the station we are told was essential to even consider Donald Trump as a presidential candidate in "Divide & Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes."
Director Alexis Bloom ("Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds") tackles the man behind the news station created to 'rile up the crazies' and 'stir up resentment' and it's not a pretty picture. Although Austin Pendleton, Ailes' high school classmate, describes the younger man as 'persuasive, witty and handsome,' his ruthlessness quickly comes to the fore as he undercuts a senior colleague for a plum position with Mike Douglas. There is no denying the man's savviness, understanding the role of television as a political tool, but time and time again he used his power to elevate the unethical, use racism as a political tool (he was behind the infamous Willie Horton ad) and harass women, ruining the careers of many who refused him sexual favors.
Many of these stories will be familiar. Lesser known, perhaps, is how Ailes and his most recent wife tried to take over their chosen home of Cold Spring, NY by buying politicians and threatening and smearing incumbent Democrats. It is the rare battle Ailes lost, but the fight got mighty ugly. Time and time again we note the similarities between Ailes and Donald J. Trump. Former Fox News host Glenn Beck speaks at length about his parting with the station, asking Ailes why he hasn't moved on. His answer, 'I still have a president to pick,' leaves Beck horrified.
If Bloom's film has a weakness, it is its focus on Ailes over the impact of his creation. We hear about the Fox News' many sex scandals, but she pays scant attention to the station's questionable journalistic standards. That is alluded to, though, in her closing moments as the hosts of Fox & Friends delight in getting Trump to flick the lights from his White House bedroom on their live shot.
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